A place you leave is never the same as the place you arrived. That’s not simply because you’re looking at it from a different angle, it’s because you’re looking as a different person. Arriving somewhere for the first time, you have nothing of that place. Leaving, you take it with you. We’ll always have Paris.
Sarah Punshon and I arrived in Margate on a windy Tuesday, to spend a week researching our show Story Hunt. On arrival, Margate was a run-down former resort, down on its luck, all empty streets and chip paper. A sputtering high street and a lot of empty buildings. When we left, it was an inspiration to artists and thinkers, the home to dozens of brilliant, driven and creative people, the site of grand guignol triumph and disaster, every building a beautiful one, every chip paper telling a story.
Story Hunt is a walking tour of the forgotten and disappeared things in a town: the buildings burned and bulldozed, the people and places now lost. We’ve made three different Story Hunts so far, in Gateshead, Stockton and Berwick, and Margate’s will be the first of 2014. This was our first foray, our introduction to the town. We spent a week walking the streets of Margate, researching the known and the forgotten history, digging through archives in the museum and reading long-unleafed-through volumes in the local history section of the library. And then we walked some more.
We learned about Turner and TS Eliot; bathing machines and lion tamers; about Karl Marx and Cobbs’ brewery. We learned that 45,000 evacuees from Dunkirk landed on Margate beach, right by where the Turner Contemporary is now. We learned about a mechanical elephant marching along the front, and live elephants swimming in the sea. We learned about the Brighton poisoner, the mad architect and the guy who strangled his mother for the insurance money. And of course we learned about Dreamland. That isn’t a pet name for the town, it was and will be the amusement park.
Dreamland is so central to the story of Margate’s past hundred years and next hundred that it’s tempting to make it a metaphor for the whole town. The name itself, Dreamland, is pregnant with that temptation. For ten years Dreamland has been an empty concrete wasteland. Its decline marks the nadir of Margate’s. Next year it will reopen and, it is hoped, bring new vigour to the town. So you can see why this fun-park-within-a-town starts to represent that town. But an empty park isn’t a town.
Most importantly, then, we met the people of Margate. Or at least, some of them. Some we managed to scrape an introduction to, others we got talking to in pubs, libraries and shops. Artists, small-business owners, librarians, council officers, teenagers, blokes in pubs – everyone had something to say about their town, what it means to them, and how it’s changed. And, from resort for the Georgian gentry to destination of choice for Del Boy, oh boy has it changed.
Listening to the people of Margate, it’s clear the town has passed its nadir and is on the up. The old town, an empty desert ten years ago, is now precarious but buzzy. The new Turner Contemporary, the bloke behind a nearby bar grudgingly admitted, has brought new visitors to the town. And Dreamland itself, the town’s pride and symbol, will open its gates again. But the town is more than Dreamland. Dreamland will help, will boost the resurgence. But it’s not a panacea. There’s plenty to be done that won’t be managed without collective will.
Story Hunt could be seen as a show that gets made in towns a little down on their luck, towns easily seen as victims of history. It’s a reflection of a town’s extraordinary people and victorious popular movements – and if you look, whatever the town, they’re never hard to find. It’s a show made in a spirit of wilful optimism, however absurd that optimism may seem at times, that things will be changed for the better, by us, by you. It’s a show about the collective will that – after this street or that street has been rerouted, after this building or that building has been closed, opened, and then knocked down, after this painter or that poet has visited, made some art, left, and died – endures. And that’s what makes a town.
It’s easy to find in Margate at the moment.
Story Hunt Margate is this Saturday, April 12; for tickets, visit: http://theatreroyalmargate.com/event/story-hunt/